At the tail end of Prune, the new cookbook by renowned New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton, there’s a section called Garbage. The chapter’s name is a witty contradiction, as what the section actually does is offer ways to give second, sometimes even third, lives to kitchen scraps including, but not limited to: limp celery, wine dregs and tomato skins. In Hamilton’s hands, these turn into feats of alchemy: zesty powders, smooth sauces, creamy soups. There, at the end, you realize, this is a warm kitchen, a strong kitchen, a proud kitchen, in which not a drop is wasted.
Prune gets its name from Hamilton’s much-loved 15-year-old East Village bistro, which, in turn got its name from the nickname Hamilton received from her mother as a child. That story, and many wonderful others, was first told in her ecstatically praised 2011 memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. In the book, Hamilton recalls her childhood, growing up on a farm and next to the apron of her gentle, nurturing mother, who instilled in her girl the feral pleasures of food: bright, fresh peas in a bushel basket, wild mushrooms pulled from deep in the woods.
The recipes in Prune, the book, are typical Hamilton. (In fact, she recently called it a “recipe companion book to the memoir.”) That means: part Italian, part French, a little bit messy and really, really beautiful. Ingredient lists are long, but dishes like Cod in Saffron Broth with Leeks, Potatoes and Savoy Cabbage are, and were, more than worth the wait.
Hamilton’s journey to the kitchen of Prune was a long one. In Blood, Bones and Butter, the chef, who has her MA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, describes with great poetry her culinary coming-of-age by way of France, Greece, Turkey and Italy. The book was a smash, and put Hamilton and her bold, internationally inspired kitchen in the global spotlight. Prune, the restaurant, also won Hamilton the James Beard Award for best chef in New York the same year Blood, Bones and Butter was published, while the book won the James Beard Award for writing and literature the following year. By revealing the stories and inspirations behind her recipes, Hamilton let people into her world, and her popularity, and Prune’s, grew exponentially. So when word spread earlier this year that she was releasing a follow-up to Blood, Bones and Butter, and that it would be a cookbook, the cult of Prune (myself included) began pounding its cutlery on the table, wanting it NOW.
When Prune the book was finally released last month, some of the immediate feedback was … puzzled. “My initial reaction was confusion and disappointment,” food writer and chef confidant Andrew Friedman wrote on the popular food site Toqueland last month. “There was no flap or cover copy to explain the concept; no foreword by one of the author’s pals; no introduction by Gabrielle herself. After the title page and table of contents, I was suddenly, jarringly, looking at the first recipe, a recipe that had no headnote and was rendered in nondescript type art directed to look like a sparse notebook page. I leafed ahead. None of the recipes had headnotes. And the third recipe had no method (i.e., instructions), just a roster of ingredients.” I have to admit I felt the same. After the intimacy of Hamilton’s memoir, Prune, with its brisk tone and bare-bones design, felt like an impersonal letdown.
But after spending some time immersed in the book, on a lazy Saturday over a cup of coffee, Friedman goes on to say it’s “a masterwork” and “a landmark achievement,” a chef’s fully realized, rough-around-the-edges dream in a world filled with bossy editors and glossy Food Network sales pitches. In this same way, the big pink book won me over, too.
Friedman and I are not alone in our accolades for Prune. The Globe’s dining critic, Chris Nuttall-Smith, this week called it “an instant classic” and his favourite cookbook of 2014, while superstar chef and culinary rebel Anthony Bourdain, with his usual restraint, declared it “a fucking masterpiece.”
The thing with masterpieces, though, is that they aren’t always immediately approachable. Nor should they be. If Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals is the culinary equivalent of a Taylor Swift song (with all due respect to Billboard’s bestselling artist of the year), Prune is something else, something harder to grasp. Unlike many other cookbooks, it doesn’t talk down to you. But it also doesn’t lead you by the hand. In short, it demands nothing short of your full attention.
My favourite section of the book is the one I talked about at the top: Garbage. What I love, besides the granola-crunchy mindset of saving every last scrap, is Hamilton’s bossy tone. In one recipe for Sardine Spines, she writes, “*Do not sell these* These are just a cook’s treat and to be used as a special wax for good friends and the right people. Don’t waste it on anyone who won’t get it.” The latter could really be the tagline for the entire book.
Hamilton, of course, is not the first proponent of turning kitchen “garbage” into gold. Modern foodie godmother Alice Waters, in her typically poetic foreword to newly minted New York Times magazine food columnist Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, says that the 2011 bestseller, based on another thrifty masterpiece, MFK Fischer’s How to Cook a Wolf (1942), is rooted in “the idea that nothing should be wasted, that cooking well is built upon a deep, preservative impulse.” (Incidentally, Adler herself, after writing Hamilton a fan letter, spent three months cooking at Prune, an experience that, she told Marie Claire magazine last month, was “so terrifying, I would have to go out the night before and get hammered just to fall asleep.”)
So, a preservative impulse, a means to save, it turns out, can and should be not just about thriftiness, but about enjoyment, taking the time to ask – and answer – the question, “What else can I do with this?”
If this sounds boring, it’s not, and if it sounds scary, I can tell you that it is. The way to do it? Flipping through, diving in, rolling up your sleeves – and doing it.
A book like Prune, full of line-cook shorthand and hand-scribbled mysterious “tips” forces you to take time, to do some legwork, to figure things out. I think this is why I fell in love with it and I think this is why: As a shy kid I grew up hating Sundays, with the week and all of its anxieties looming in the front window, just ahead.
As a some-time adult, I now use Sundays, a day still weighed down with a sort of first-day-of-school anxiety more than a decade since I last saw the inside of a classroom, as a day of meditation at the stove. Each Sunday afternoon for the past few months I’ve picked a new recipe, bought the ingredients, and spent the day cooking away quietly, peacefully, building up strength for the week ahead. Mastering new dishes is helping me gain confidence; building up a culinary arsenal increasingly feels like part of some grand plan.
Back in Blood, Bones and Butter, Hamilton detailed her initial plan for Prune, the restaurant, saying, “there would be no foam and no ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry. There would be nothing tall on the plate, the portions would be generous, there would be no emulsions, no crab cocktail served in a martini glass with its claw hanging over the rim. In ecstatic farewell to my years of corporate catering, we would never serve anything but a martini in a martini glass. Preferably gin.”
Prune, the book, then, is the continuation of that gorgeously messy, simply complicated vision – and then some.
Maggie Wrobel is an editor with Globe Arts.Report Typo/Error